(a version of this blog first appeared as a Westminster Briefing feature and through my day-job in Dec 2012)
With the holiday season upon us, is it time to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate than ourselves, students starting university next year. Here are the higher education policy ideas I’d like to see unwrapped in 2013.
Wish one – If we can’t reduce the costs of university then we should at least make them easier to understand. The Key Information Sets (KIS) are an important and largely positive move, providing detailed information on courses (such as starting salaries) and even includes an open Application Programming Interface (API) so others can build useable apps based on the data. However, the information within it is still very patchy and as some research suggests, providing information alone is insufficient. The students and families that already possess so many advantages are also relatively better-positioned to make use of such sources, whereas more disadvantaged applicants, who might have equal ability or potential, tend to lack such support – leading to unequal opportunities and an education system that can increase inequality. With the student funding system having become a lot more complicated recently, it is vital that both institutions and the government work on improving clarity next year.
Wish two – Invest in the National Careers Service (NCS) to create a universal and effective public service. The move to create an all-age careers service with a single website and helpline is to be applauded, but without proper funding it won’t achieve its potential. In particular there is growing evidence of a drop in provision, especially advice delivered face-to-face and to young people. There are both economic and social costs from people making poor decisions at critical points as they progress through life. Too many people are unaware of the options available to them and end up in inappropriate courses or jobs. Universities need to massively increase their outreach activities to support better choices, rather than funding more merit-based scholarships that have been proved to harm social mobility.
Wish three – It is time to explicitly support teaching values, as well as knowledge and skills. One of the growing trends through this period of austerity is a focus on employment as the key outcome of higher education. Prospective applicants are more focussed on employment rates and starting salaries than ever before and institutions are increasingly building ‘employability skills’ into their provision. I wouldn’t argue with that but I think we need to go further, by helping students to develop the values that they need and expect in the long-term. This is about social enterprise, sustainability, volunteering and emotional intelligence – with a focus on good jobs and lives rather than just salaries. I’d love to see government and HEFCE start to talk more about these softer and harder to measure outcomes.